Getting out of your vegetable rut.
Many of us are familiar with classic Euro-American-based vegetable crops such as kale, spinach, collard greens and chard. But have you ever heard of gai lan? While the aforementioned traditional greens are fabulous and indispensable mainstays in most gardens and markets, the world has much more to offer. We have yet to discover the untapped potential of delectable vegetables out there—specifically Asian varieties of greens. So let’s take a look at some of the favorites that billions of other humans have steamed, stir-fried, chopped and prepared, and learn how to use and fully appreciate these specialty greens!
Napa cabbage probably is the Asian green that Americans are most familiar with, and is commonly found in standard markets. Of good size, napa or Chinese cabbage is oblong, with large white stalks and light green leaves. Considerably more tender and mild in flavor than the cabbages we are accustomed to, napa is spectacular when used in stir-fries and soups, and is also a tasty, crunchy addition in raw salads. It’s the key ingredient in the fermented and probiotic-packed Korean salad, kimchi. Many local Asian markets and restaurants prepare and sell their own organic, housemade kimchi. If you aren’t brave enough to make some, do yourself the savory favor and purchase some spicy napa pickles at Koko Kitchen (702 S. 300 East, SLC), or the highly acclaimed housemade, packaged kimchi at the Oriental Food Market (667 S. 700 East, SLC) sometime soon.
Gai lan: Chinese broccoli
While exchanging this summer’s gardening plans with vegetable grower Sohleng Wakema—a current Utah resident who was born in Singapore and raised in Australia—she suggested, “Why don’t you plant some Chinese broccoli this season?”
Chinese broccoli or gai lan, meaning “mustard orchid,” is actually is a close cousin to broccoli and kale. With thick, dark-green stalks and large leaves, it has a familiar broccoli taste but is slightly more bitter. Adding the Asian cruciferous gai lan to a sizzling stir-fry with garlic and oyster sauce is a savory dish—one you should relish exploring.
You most likely are familiar with an array of peas, and enjoy their sweet, crisp snap in a pod, steamed in various dishes, as a side with a dollop of melted butter, or mixed into mashed potatoes. The most common variety found on American shelves and bagged in freezers is the “garden” or “English pea,” which, albeit common, is undeniably a standard go-to vegetable.
I eat my peas with honey;
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.
Forgoing the fruit of the pea plant, let’s consider its undervalued shoot. Once a pea is in the ground and just past its first true seed or cotyledon leaves, the first 2-4 inches of growth is considered the shoot, and can be then cut and used in any number of tasty ways. The shoots of snow peas or sugar snap peas have hollow stems with tender leaves and delicate tendrils. They have a mild, fresh flavor, which can be tossed into stir-fried dishes with garlic, as a garnish on soups, or eaten raw in salads.
Bok Choy: Chinese white cabbage
Found in either its mature or baby form, bok choy is popular enough that it can be found in most grocery markets. Fully mature, it has bright white stems with dark-green leaves; baby bok choy is smaller with stems and leaves that are bright light-green. Mature bok choy can be deliciously prepared in a hot sizzling wok. At Oh Mai (multiple locations, ohmaisandwich.com), they prepare Vietnamese pho, which is a rich and flavorful broth (vegan options available) with noodles, sprouts and basil and is complemented perfectly with baby bok choy.
Where can you buy Asian greens locally?
From fresh pea shoots to napa cabbage, the Salt Lake Downtown Farmers Market, Wheeler Farm and Park City farmers markets as well as local CSA (community supported agriculture) businesses are sustainable sources to supply our communities with the freshest, and often organic, options when it comes to finding Asian greens.
“Educating the consumer plays a big part of appreciating these specialty greens,” says local urban farmer Shad Stagl of Stagl Organics (staglorganics.com). “Our CSA members often have questions about what to do with the Asian variety vegetables that we grow and provide in our weekly vegetable shares. We do our best to explain and share recipe ideas with them so that they can fully appreciate vegetables that they might not otherwise try.”